By Jenny Tang, V Form
The Islamic Art of the Calligraphic Manuscript By Muhammad Taqi (1695)
Most people, upon hearing art, think of visuals. They recall famous paintings and sculpture. Art, however, has many more facets. Islam, for instance, regards calligraphy and book-making
as the highest form of art. For this reason, a calligraphic manuscript was chosen for this assignment. The manuscript also presents visual elements worth studying. The piece is created by Muhammad Taqi in Persia of 1695 during the era of the Safavid Empire. It is stored in Carnegie Mellon University’s rare books collection. The manuscript has a floral painting cover, a first-page design, and calligraphy. It contains namaz (daily prayers) and verses for Ramadan (the Month of Fasting) written in Arabic. Given its size of 13 by 9 by 1.3 cm, it was probably carried around for prayers. The calligraphic manuscript exemplifies Islamic art by using the elements of floral arabesque, geometry, and calligraphy. Analyzing the manuscript unveils Islamic art’s root in both religion and secular, global influences.
Floral motifs appear in both the first-page design and the cover. On the first page, around the geometric borders and shapes, a colorful, floral arabesque fills the space.
The use of vegetal pattern here is a classic element of Islamic art, seen in paintings, ceramics, and even on buildings. One famous example is Taj Mahal’s inside walls, the winding floral pattern on which is not unlike that on the manuscript. To affirm its true that “there is no god but God,” Islam forbids idolatry and frowns upon the depiction of humans and animals, especially in a religious context. Therefore, when illustrating nature, Islamic artists turn to flowers, as shown in this painting. The replacement of figures with plants shows religious beliefs’ strong influence on Islamic art. Even as artists roam free with their creativity, they do not forget their God’s words and let religious practices, such as the exclusion of idolatry, guide their work. Corresponding to the first-page decoration is the manuscript cover, which also visualizes vegetation but in a different style. On an orange background are red, orange, and yellow flowers surrounded by dark green leaves. This style is less common than the floral arabesque for it attempts realism, which some believe equates the sacrilegious idolatry. It is, however, didactic of Persian Islamic art. Persian Islamic artists are generally less avoidant of literal depictions, partly due to Chinese art, which is more realistic, influencing their painting style. The palette of reds and greens, use of outlines, and rendering with gradient is typical of traditional Chinese floral watercolor. Despite the popularity of abstraction, some Islamic artists still take after realistic global influences, like Persian painters do with Chinese art. Though Islamic art is often religious, this painting teaches us that it is also shaped by other culture’s secular elements. The floral motifs found in the manuscript represents Islamic arabesque and Persian vegetation painting. The diverse styles, some following the teachings of the Qur’an and others impacted by art around the world, shows the variety of influences of Islamic art.
Geometric shapes, another essence of Islamic art, is used in this manuscript. On the first page painting, a pointed dome shape appears repeatedly. This shape is common in architecture and acts as both negative space, like the arch of doorways, and positive space, like tops of towers. Horizontal symmetry exists in the painting, as it does in Islamic mosques and textiles. The composition of dividing the canvas horizontally into a big top rectangle and a narrow bottom one is also shared by other manuscript paintings, as seen in another example attached. Geometric borders are used to fence in the painting, providing strength and structure to the flowing arabesque inside. Similarly, on the cover, a hard border surrounds the blooming flowers. A closer look at the borders shows reiterated shapes of stretched out hexagons, a use of repeating geometric pattern. Islamic art focuses on portraying the essence of objects, representing them spiritually instead of naturalistically. As a result, they see geometry as the perfect medium since it is abstract and deep.Aside from avoiding idolatry, Islamic artists use geometric designs to evoke God. By showing the viewers the abstract and universal instead of the realistic and the specific, artists take their audience’s attention away from trivial, worldly matters and instead to a bigger picture seen from the perspective of God. This also takes the artist closer to Allah as one creates art. Additionally, how the geometric arabesque repeats, continues and satisfies our aesthetics represents the omnipresence, infinity, and beauty of God. This symbolism exemplifies the creative process of religious Islamic artists: art is created not only for self-expression but also to honor God and pass forth his message. The shapes in the manuscript here are quintessential of Islamic art’s use of geometry in architecture, textile, and painting. It is an element strongly influenced by religion.
Calligraphy is the last artistic element used in this 1695 manuscript. The manuscript speaks for Islamic calligraphy for the writing is religious, written with presumably a hollow nib pen, and in the common style Naskh. Assisting the black ink, red is used here to highlight words related to Allah, again, to conform to religious practices. Ink smudges appear quite often. Though the smudges here are not likely intentional, it is worth mentioning that some Islamic artists do introduce mistakes into their work on purpose, a sign of humility and reminding others that only God is capable of perfect creations. The utilization of Naskh instead of the Kufic style here is also due to religious influence. Kufic, a harsh and angular style, served a practical purpose for straight lines are easier to create on the old, hard parchment paper. After softer paper was invented, however, Naskh, a delicate, rounded style took over. The reason is many believed Naskh’s flowing beauty made it a better match for God’s words. In Islam, beauty is regarded as a divine quality, therefore having a physically and formally beautiful calligraphy is important in doing justice to the divine spiritual beauty of Allah’s words. Calligraphy holds a special place in Islamic art because Islam emphasizes reading and writing. The Qur’an says people should “Read! [For the] Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who has taught the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know” (96:3-5). The pen is a symbol for knowledge, and the Qur’an, the words of God, is the first piece of art. Just like with arabesques, when artists write calligraphy, they honor God by not only physically copying his words but also conjuring the concept of Allah in the calligraphy’s balanced weight, graceful rhythm, and awesome beauty. While calligraphy is mostly religious, as with everything else in Islamic art, it does not have to be. When writings are not Quranic verses, they can be poetry in Arabic, Persian, or other languages. In fact, as Islam spreads east into China, some Chinese Muslim calligraphers combine elements of Chinese calligraphy with Islamic calligraphy, introducing fresh elements into Islamic art. The manuscript here is classic Islamic calligraphy. It has strong religious symbolism and influence but still is, however, influenced by the secular art of other culture
The 1695 manuscript is a teaching example of Islamic art because it utilizes the classic Islamic elements of floral motif, geometry, and calligraphy. Analysis reveals that Islamic art is shaped largely by religious rules, like the ban on idolatry and admiration for writing. However, Islamic art also takes after secular influences from other culture, like Chinese painting and calligraphy. Art is an integral part of a Muslim’s life for followers of Islam integrate religion into their lives. Since much of Islamic art is a vessel for Allah’s presence, many Muslims put art on everyday utilitarian objects to remind themselves of the divine presence. Even when they go on with their daily lives, they do not fall into its superficiality but instead stay contemplative and aware with the floral arabesque, geometry, and calligraphy all around them. Historically, westerners often thought Islamic art lacks technique and is inferior due to the lack of human figures. Today, it is understood to be due to not a lack of skills but the wish to honor God and look at the world from a more universal perspective. Breaking out of the western lens when looking at the arts of other cultures is crucial for true understanding. By examining didactic examples and analyzing deep meanings, peoples can be more educated about the different cultures they share. This not only increases their appreciation for the arts but also making the world safe for human differences.
Jenny Tang is a V Form boarding student from Sunnyvale, CA. She loves art and science.
“Arabic Writing and Scripts: A Brief Guide | Shutterstock.” Shutterstock.com, The Shutterstock Blog, 2 Feb. 2018, http://www.shutterstock.com/blog/a-brief-guide-to-arabic-scripts-and-calligraphy.
Barlow, Glenna. “Arts of the Islamic World: the Later Period.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 8 Aug. 2015, http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-islam/islamic-art-late-period/a/arts-of-the-islamic-world-the-later-period.
“Calligraphy in Islamic Art.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2001, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cali/hd_cali.htm.
Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” A 1000 Years Amnesia: Sports in Muslim Heritage | Muslim Heritage, Foundation in Science Technology and Innovation, http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art.
Hussain, Zarah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Religion, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/art/art_1.shtml.
Help received from Mary Kay and Ethan Pullman from the Hunt Library of Carnegie Mellon University
Images found on Google
See images of manuscript
Barlow, Ethan Pullman
See attached example Chinese watercolor
Arabic Writing and Scripts
Arabic Writing and Scripts
See attached images of Chinese Islamic Calligraphy